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ATTITUDES / AURORA MACKEY

The High Cost of Taxational Infirmity

April 22, 1993|AURORA MACKEY

A friend of mine knows very well what to do at tax time.

Each year she empties out her purse with months of crumpled receipts at the bottom, grabs her car keys and makes a beeline to the mall. Meanwhile, her hapless spouse locks himself in a room, sorting through their joint tax return, and utters unprintable words about her.

A couple of hours later she returns--strategically empty-handed, of course--and tells him in the sweetest tone she can muster that she just didn't have the heart to spend any more money after being so irresponsible. Can he ever forgive her?

If her ploy is effective, she can get him to speak to her civilly in about a week. By that time, he's given up and filed for an extension--hoping against hope to put off the entire ordeal.

April 15 comes and passes, but the return is no closer to making it to the mailbox.

Of course, not everyone is like my friend.

Clearly, there are some Homo sapiens out there who actually do manage their lives in a fiscally responsible manner, who methodically file tax-related documents in one logical place all year long, who approach the preparation of their tax returns as if they were dental appointments--unpleasant but necessary--and who cannot quite fathom what all the fuss is about.

For them, the thought of filing an extension is only slightly less foreign an idea than wearing a kimono to work.

This is the kind of person I invariably end up seated next to on long airplane trips. The only effective method I have found for discouraging discourse is to say I become airsick unless I concentrate fully on a book.

But then there are the rest of us.

We are the taxationally obtuse, the monetarily challenged, the financially infirm. One look at the tax form we pick up at the post office makes us feel as though a cement block has formed in the pit of our stomachs, that the sky has become a huge butter dish and we are now under it, that no one in the world can possibly help us.

No one, perhaps, except a professional.

"Some people come in here and are very knowledgeable about their tax situation, but the bulk have either misinformation or no information," said Mark Goldenson, a Ventura accountant. "That's probably why 55% of all returns are filed by professionals."

But Goldenson, who has a master's of science degree in taxation--which is probably one reason he can do taxes and you can't--doesn't think it has anything to do with intelligence.

He seems to think it's more of a mind-set.

"Einstein once made the comment that he didn't have enough intelligence to do his own tax return," he said. "So it can't be that."

*

I don't know what Einstein's mind-set was, but mine usually resembles that of an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.

On one hand, there is the somewhat haughty view that the government generally acts like a dieter nibbling away at cookie crumbs, who then insists the calories didn't count when the cookie bag is empty.

All that paycheck withholding doesn't mean anything because a big chunk is still due at the end of the year.

On the other hand--and this hand is much, much bigger than the first--there is the Fear Factor. We are dealing, after all, with the IRS.

You know, that forgiving entity that finally tripped up Al Capone?

This, for many people, is what brings on the paralysis at the post office:

No IRS agent will care that you spent your high school math class staring at the cute guy by the window and have no idea how to subtract line 24a from the sum of lines 16 and 32 divided by line 40.

Or that you really didn't know that your manicurist wasn't a legitimate cost of doing business.

Or that you are a brain surgeon, a corporate president or anyone else generally viewed with a modicum of respect--who at tax time is reduced to a shadow of yourself.

Or that you just couldn't get it together to file on April 15 because you had to wash your hair that day.

"There are people who come into this office who are titans of industry, and they grovel," said Clifford Hey, a Ventura CPA who might get some of his desperate phone calls because of his friendly listing in the phone book. "At times, what I do is non-professional therapy."

Hey does point out that his main job isn't to make people feel better, but to get them through their ordeal. To do that, he tries to educate them to become better organized the other 364 days of the year.

But a lot of times it's like sailing into the wind.

"I have this doctor as a client, and whenever anything comes to his house that even hints of taxes, he sends it straight on to me. I said, 'Look, at least throw away the envelope and get rid of the carbons first,' but he said taxes just stress him out too much and he can't even touch any of it.

"I charge the bejesus out of him."

Now that the filing deadline has passed, perhaps my friend, the doctor and I could have lunch. We could compare notes on what we did wrong this year and how we are going to try to do better in the months ahead.

We could talk business. Make it totally legitimate.

None of us would remember to take the receipt.

This column was meant to run on April 15, but Los Angeles Times staff writer Aurora Mackey filed an extension with her editor.

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